You can find the introduction to this series here. The Orioles have one of the best catchers in the league in Matt Wieters. Eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, he’s under team control for 3 more years. Because the Orioles held him in the minors until May of 2009, he’s only going to be eligible for arbitration 3 times instead of 4. I’m sure the Orioles would love to extend him past the 2015 season, when he’ll be just 29. However, with Scott Boras as his agent that will be a difficult proposition.
The team also has soon to be 29 year old Taylor Teagarden on the 40 man roster. Like Wieters, he’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, though he’s a candidate to be non-tendered. If the Orioles choose to non-tender Teagarden, they would then look to the free agent market to fill their back-up catcher role. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what catchers are available in free agency this year. Here’s the full list with their age at the beginning of the 2013 season in parentheses.
Rod Barajas (37) $3.5 million club option
Henry Blanco (41) $1.24 million mutual option
Koyie Hill (34)
Gerald Laird (33)
Russell Martin (30)
Jose Molina (37) $1.8 million club option
Mike Napoli (31)
Dioner Navarro (29)
Wil Nieves (35)
Miguel Olivo (34)
Ronny Paulino (32)
A.J. Pierzynski (36)
Humberto Quintero (33)
David Ross (36)
Brian Schneider (36)
Kelly Shoppach (33)
Chris Snyder (32) $4 million mutual option
Yorvit Torrealba (34)
Matt Treanor (37)
It’s not a terribly inspiring list with only one catcher under the age of 30 available. After the Braves and Phillies picked up the options on Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz respectively, the group of free agent catchers became even weaker. The three starting caliber players on the list are Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, and A.J. Pierzynski. The Orioles won’t think about signing Martin or Pierzynski. Napoli however, with his ability to play first base as well as catch could be interesting to the club. In 2012, Napoli was much less productive than he was in his outstanding 2011 season but he still posted a .349 wOBA. That would have been good for 4th highest on the team. He also has a career .356 on base percentage. Dan Duquette has stated multiple times that he’s interested in increasing the on base percentage of the club. Duquette is also rumored to be interested in a power bat to insert into the middle of the lineup, of which Napoli would certainly qualify.
I would expect the Orioles to at least kick the tires on Napoli, though he won’t come cheap. He made $9.4 million for the Texas Rangers in 2012, and would look to sign a multi-year contract in free agency. Turning 31 this offseason, I’d expect him to land a contract in the 3 year/$30 million range. That will probably price him out of the Orioles budget. I think they’ll be interested, but will be outbid by another club.
Among the backup types that are available, not many of them are interesting. David Ross is probably the best backup catcher in baseball, but he and the Braves have expressed mutual interest in having Ross return to the team next season. With McCann possibly out for the beginning of 2013, bringing Ross back will be even more important to the Braves.
Beyond Ross, the Orioles could have some interest in Jose Molina, Kelly Shoppach, or Yorvit Torrealba. Each of these three would likely command a one year contract in the $1-1.5 million range. The Rays have a $1.8 million option on Molina, but could turn it down in search of an upgrade. While Molina has repeatedly gotten high marks for pitch framing, his offensive production lags behind most starting catchers. Shoppach can hit the occasional home run and has been much better against lefties throughout his career. Torrealba has been around replacement level during most of his career.
Because of the lack of inspiring options in free agency, I expect the Orioles to tender an arbitration offer to Taylor Teagarden. It’s likely that the team agrees to a contract with Teagarden for around $800,000 before actually going to arbitration. I don’t think the Orioles will sign any free agents at the catcher position. The Orioles are in the envious position of having Matt Wieters under team control for the next three seasons, and I expect them to take advantage of that by going relatively cheap at the backup catcher position.
Update: The Rays are planning to exercise the option on Jose Molina.